Book review: The Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee

THE publishers say: “The Childhood of Jesus is a profound, beautiful and continually surprising novel by a very great writer.”

The Childhood of Jesus

By JM Coetzee

Harvill Secker, 277pp, £16.99

I suspect they might have judged differently if the manuscript had arrived in the office without the author’s name attached to it. Coetzee has won the Booker Prize twice and been awarded the Nobel, and so he is “a very great writer” and this book is “profound, beautiful and continually surprising”. However in the rest of the blurb on the inside of the front cover, they content themselves with outlining the plot or story in a manner which suggests that they don’t really know what to make of the book. Their puzzlement is understandable; I don’t know what to make of it either.

One thing is clear. If you buy the book in the expectation that it will be set in Palestine and deal imaginatively with the childhood of Jesus of Nazareth during the Roman Empire, you will be disappointed. The child in the novel, who goes by the name of David, is not the historical Jesus, though he is, I presume, intended as a metaphorical representation of him, a six-year-old boy who is frequently described as “an exceptional child”, who is unsuited to school lessons, and who carries a copy of Don Quixote with him and teaches himself to read from this book.

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The setting is an unnamed or unidentified country, probably in Latin America; Spanish is spoken there. The boy David arrives as a refugee in the care of a man called Simon who hopes to find the boy’s real mother and is sure he will recognise her when he finds her. It seems to be a pleasant enough country, but is also an odd place where the past is wiped out. The early chapters are somewhat perfunctory Son of Kafka stuff, and rather dull. A note I made about page 60 reads: “The interest of a novel usually lies in the story, the characters and the setting; so far such interest is almost entirely lacking. The story meanders slowly, the characters, and the relations between them, are unconvincing, and the setting scarcely realised.”

Simon finds a job as a stevedore at the docks. His colleagues are kind and agreeable and make a pet of the boy. He meets a woman called Elena who is friendly and agrees to have unenthusiastic sex with him; her son Fidel and David become friends. But she is not the mother he is looking for. One day Simon and David take a trip into the country. They come on a big house where two men and a woman are playing tennis, watched by a big Alsatian dog. Simon at once decides that the woman, Ines, is the boy’s mother. There is no reason why he should think so. Nevertheless he persuades her to take charge of David – even though she is at first relocating. This would make no sense in a realistic novel – and indeed Elena tells Simon he is behaving stupidly, even madly. Nevertheless the reader must accept it.

The second – and better – half of the novel deals mostly with David’s education and the inability of his teachers to come to terms with his “exceptional” nature and talents. The narrative picks up, becoming quite lively at times, and arguments between the educational authorities and Ines and Simon at last offer dramatic scenes, something that Coetzee has always done well when he troubles to do it. The boy David has moments of perceptiveness and contrariness which may lead you to think that the child Jesus might indeed have been somewhat like that. However, if the novel had a different title, it is unlikely any possible resemblance between David and Jesus would have occurred to you. Likewise, one might not think David quite so exceptional if Simon and Ines didn’t repeatedly say he is that; one might indeed think him merely a gifted, often charming, tiresome, and difficult small boy.

The novel ends with the three of them travelling in search of a new life. This is understandable as they haven’t had much of one before. But no doubt it is a metaphor for the Christian message. It seems a bit obvious, even platitudinous.

Some readers may find the beauty, profundity and continual surprises the publishers promise. Good luck to them.

For my part the novel is at best evidence of what you can get away with if you are billed as “a very great writer”. It seems to me an unremarkable and undistinguished book, with nothing very interesting to say. There is a photograph of a tennis party between the two world wars on the cover, but the dog in the picture is not an Alsatian. I don’t know why, but the cover suggests that the publishers are at a bit of a loss themselves. Since it’s by Coetzee, it can’t – surely? – be as dull and pointless as it seems. Or can it?

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